The Last Straw
Athena & Bill Steen
A casual conversation with Bill Steen and Athena Swentzell Steen, two of the authors of the best-selling book The Straw Bale House, on the essence of building.
Athena: For me, building comes back to relationships: whether it's the relationship between the owner and the person building,
the relationship among the people building, the relationship of the spaces to each other, the relationship of indoor space, outdoor space, and people to the space, of people to people within those spaces, the relationship to the land it sits on, and to the larger context. That's the main focus. The object is not to come out with a house that's strawbale, or low income, or economically feasible, or marketable. I think that's what the world is missing. That's what people are looking for. That's why they are always feeling the hollowness, the emptiness.
Bill: I don't know how you go back. We're so far out of touch now. It's gotten to the point that the intersections of the major streets of most large cities are predictably the same. You could be in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Detroit. It's all the same thing. Modern buildings are a product of mass-produced building materials, not the landscape of which they are a part. In contrast, traditional cultures, most often for lack of anything else, used the materials that surrounded them. In the pueblos, what tied them to the landscape is that the adobes were made out of the dirt that was right there and the vigas were cut from the forests.
Athena: I was walking down a little canyon and watching the water flowing through and hearing the noise, hearing it trickle and then change sounds as it hit this pool and this other rock. What's making that water sing? What's making that music? Is it the water? It's the relationship of the rock and that water that's making it sing, making that music. And what's making it change? It's all those textures—smooth here, then rough there that makes it change. And that's what we do with our buildings. But which is creating which, because they're happening simultaneously? The water is carving away endlessly at that rock, and the rock is at the same time making the water go here, over there, slow down, spin, twirl, fall. It makes the water do what it does and at the same time the water is creating the rock. It's like our spaces. My mother talks about the breath all the time, which is just the energy that flows through these buildings. I realize I am the energy of this house. I am like the breath of this house. I am the water of this space that I am flowing through, and it's going to make me sing a certain way. It's those textures that I go through. It's going to be this corner that I have to walk around every single day. Every morning that I go through this house, it's making me sing what I sing, and it's carving me and I'm carving it. Look at what they do to the water in cities everywhere they have a river. They line it with concrete. You listen. You can be right next to that water and you can't hear it. You don't even know it exists. It doesn't make a sound because it's going through this straight channel with no texture, no change. It's scary.
That's how most buildings get built, all those buildings that are slick and sleek and architect-designed. We are becoming that channel with the concrete where the water doesn't sing anymore.
I want to create my own space, and I want my space to create me. And you have to let it create you. That's the problem with many architects. They say, "I am going to create this" instead of looking at the relationships. They'll put on all the good words, saying "I'm going to build it so it's sustainable and uses natural materials." And there's the channel again. You think it's going to make you feel good. But it doesn't. And it never will.
What feels good is when I stack a few rocks, glue them together with mud, use what's there, and start creating. That's a place where I want to come and spend time. I want to go and sit there. And because of the materials and the way that you're doing it, and because it's shaping you and you're shaping it, it's forever changing. The architects' designs can never be changed. Now they plug in numbers and get a design right off the computer. They're perfect from the beginning, and there's no chance of relationship when it's perfect from the beginning.
Bill: When you go down to the building supply store, everything that you're going to buy there, the materials and the tools that you need to put them together, all come out of that larger industrial context. So you put yourself back into the channel again, because it's all mass-produced, it's all highly mechanized. You can't make a different kind of building anymore, because the materials are going to snap you right back into the mainstream again. Everything's modular. If you don't make your building using those materials perfectly rectangular, very precisely measured, you're in for a lot of trouble as far as how all the other pieces go together. You will have a big mess on your hands.
Athena: One problem is that the building materials have become so untextured. Then you have to work extra hard now and pay extra, pay a fortune to make it textureful again.
Bill: They're very geometrically precise. They're very Euclidean in that sense. Everything is very angular. Everything's based upon very rectangular divisions and laid out on a grid. You look down from up in an airplane and it's all these squares, rectangles, patterns. It translates down into the house. The culture we live in is just this collection of abstract ideas. We live in an abstract world with no connection to nature anymore. I'd say we've lost total touch with nature in that sense. We don't know how to survive. It's like we've traded our ability to live as creatures, such as how we get food and how we create a shelter. We've traded it all off to experts. You have an expert design and build your house. Somebody grows your food someplace else. Somebody tells you how to comb your hair.
Athena: I think that the thing that we're not seeing is how big a hole we have inside ourselves because we don't know how to build a shelter, because we don't know how to grow our food. We don't have within ourselves the basic tools that we need to survive, and what a hole that must leave. I don't think we even begin to appreciate how empty we are.
Bill: There was a great title to this New York Times article I saw not long ago. I don't remember the content of it, but the title was so good. It said "We're Leaner, Meaner, and Going Nowhere Faster." We are going nowhere, we're doing it faster than we used to, and we're doing it more efficiently.
Athena: My philosophy is, if I build it, and I put my care and my love in it, and I do it to the best of my ability, I don't care how long it lasts. If it lasts and serves a purpose, great. And if it falls down, I can do it again, because I was the one who created it. I can continue to create, and I don't need it to last forever.
Bill: Somebody said recently, "Thank God all the Native Americans weren't using concrete foundations before we arrived. Can you imagine what this place would have looked like when we got here?"
How many garden beds can you make from broken-up concrete? There's a limit. Take concrete out of the equation, put a fence all the way around Santa Fe, and tell people now they have to build out of what's there. What are you going to do? Let's extend the limits. Give it a couple hundred miles. You can't bring anything in beyond that. How are you going to build? That is a great challenge. That changes the equation incredibly.
I think the best I felt recently was when we were building this little outdoor garden room at our home. We went to the next canyon where we collected all the rock for the foundation with the pick-up truck. That put us back in touch with the context where we were. For the straw we went over to the next town and hauled it back ourselves. We needed some posts for the front of the building. So we got these wonderful alligator junipers, these magnificent trees, and discovered how absolutely incredible they are in terms of all their uses.
For little vigas we got a friend to bring over some little lodge pole pines from this big burn that happened in the Chiricahua Mountains nearby. Then we needed latillas. Our hills are covered with agave—century plants—which have these great stalks which, as long as they're out of the weather, will last forever. They're strong, they're durable, and they're full of insulation inside. They have like a Styrofoam core without the plastic coating. So it was this amazing interaction with all these materials. It was incredibly satisfying to be in touch with the place where we were and to build with what was around us.
Athena: And you say, "Wow! I could do that!" And it would be simple, beautiful, and full of all the texture you could want. And you sit in it, and feel it, and feel full, and feel happy. And when you feel full and happy, then you can relate to the person next to you. Then you can have relationships. I don't know how people can have relationships when they're living all hollow. They're living imitation relationships. Everything is imitated—style, context, relationship. It's all imitated.
Bill: Our lives in cities become more and more cut off from the natural environment to the point that I think people think they need more than they need because their whole life has moved indoors. They are dependent upon what happens inside their house.
Athena: They're trying to fill a void, and in the process they keep building bigger and bigger houses with more stuff and more consumerism. And it just gets worse and worse, more and more of a void, and then you expect these "void" people to create relationships or houses? Right! I'm totally amazed we're still going and the world is still going.
Bill: Periodically some of the fellows that we work with in Mexico come up to our place. One day we were drilling holes for something and we needed a half-inch drill bit. I couldn't find one. In fact, I couldn't get anything close. So I drove over to the neighbor's to see if he had one. He wasn't home. "Then we'll drive up to Sonoita," I said, "and go to a hardware store." This one fellow is looking at me, and he said, "Do you have a big nail?" Within minutes he'd taken this nail, flattened it out, taken the hacksaw, and cut a point. Then he got a file and sharpened it, and within twenty minutes we had a drill bit. I never left the property. My mind doesn't think that way. I don't know how to survive that way.
Athena: Another time we had this old man visiting us when Benito dropped a toy down the sewer line and clogged it up. But we didn't know where, just somewhere between the house and the tank. We were going to have to dig up about seventy-five feet of line. So we spent about half a day trying to figure out how to get a backhoe in there and this old Mexican man was just watching us. Finally he said, "Hand me a shovel." Of course by that time we could have had it all dug up anyway. So we start digging and we were having wonderful conversations with him and there was no backhoe noise.
After working with him a few months I began to see that the way he approached tools made work more enjoyable. You're not trying to run away from it, you're not trying to get out of it. You're trying to include people in it. Americans use tools to get out of work. And that's a huge difference.
I watch this when we take groups down to Mexico. They talk about how to create community, how to have a relationship. They have all these programs and ideas and systems. And when we take these Americans, who don't even speak a word of Spanish, down to Mexico there will be tension at first because of the awkwardness of being in a different culture and not having the words to say. But as soon as we start building this house together, side by side, all of a sudden we don't need any words. I can work side by side with a person for six days and be connected and related to that person way beyond what those words would have given us.
Bill: And you're back to relationships.
Athena: I think work is the most amazing tool in creating relationship and community, and all we want to do in this country is run away from it. You want someone else to do it. You want to buy your way out of it. You want some machines to do it instead of you, instead of saying "Wow! We get to work today! Come on, kids. Come on, let's get to work!"
Cooking is the same thing, that same process. You go outside in that garden, knowing that you planted that seed, you watered it, and you bring that tomato in. That tomato is special because you worked hard at it. You have a three-month relationship with that tomato. Watching it and taking care of it and nurturing it. How are you going to get nurturing from something that you have had no relationship to, no contact with, something you bought at the store for fifty cents? Nobody wants to give any more. All they want to do is take. And they expect that the more they take the more they will fill that void, the more they'll feel full.
Bill: What's needed, in my philosophy, are things that aren't highly processed or manufactured, things that you can combine, put together on levels that bring people back into the process without experts—things you can do, sometimes crudely, at other times beautifully and simply. It would be simpler, much more creative, and smaller. And it would keep growing and it would keep evolving, and ultimately when it came time to disappear, it could disappear. It would go just like the old adobes, the mounds that you see out in the hills here where they just melt back into the ground. In the midst of all this, all of the madness that we live in, there are people now who are making those choices. There are people who are building that way, who are trying to build that way. Every day is like a new box opening, a new window opening, and you keep seeing something, some new way of combining mud and straw or some other fiber that you didn't see before. I see other people doing it. How many people? Will there ever be enough? I don't know. But I see people doing it willingly, by choice.
Athena: We conduct week-long workshops at our place and it's nice because it's isolated and nobody leaves. So you get this experience that you can't often get in everyday life. You're eating together, you're talking together, day after day, and no one leaves. And energy builds. But sometimes you'll get professionals dealing with building in the standard mode or people who have never, ever built anything before. And I'm amazed at how many people are scared, just scared to do anything, to try it. They're scared to make a mistake. And you realize that that is what is so great about dealing with those simple building materials. It's really hard to make a mistake. And if you do, it's really easy to fix the mistake or to take that mistake and create something amazing from that mistake. It's a forgiving world when you are dealing with those materials.
Bill: You can't do that with cement stucco.
Athena: Over and over again I hear, "This is the first time I've touched mud since I was a kid." And you know, that's amazing. The material most abundantly available, no one has touched for thirty years. And as soon as they touch it, they can play again. And that's where play becomes work, work becomes play. In the Indian language there isn't a word for "work." It just doesn't exist. You look at the kids and they're out building things and playing, and they see the mud come out and they come running and get into the middle of it. That's part of the beauty of these materials. They are fun.
Where has the fun gone in building? When you have someone build it for you, in the end no one is speaking to each other, everybody hates each other, and you're feeling screwed because you paid double the amount. And you go, "Where is the fun anymore?" All that money and no one loves you more. You don't even love yourself more because you're now mad at everybody you worked with over the last two years.
Most people have boxes around their known world: what they know, their experience. So their world is about this big. When they are able to get past that one box and let go, then something totally different can take place and something bigger can start happening in their life. At the end of the workshop we see people go, "Wow!" Something has broken in their thinking, in their wiring, something is bubbling and they are excited. There is something new there that wasn't already in their boxes on how to do it.
There is always something new, something exciting, some new combinations. And in those combinations you're constantly creating an infinite possibility and infinite potential, something new all the time. You create beautiful things when you're feeling beautiful and having fun. Then the beauty just bubbles out. Beauty is. When I'm sitting and talking to you and working side by side, and we decide we need this wall here, and you come and help me, and we start just doing it, and you're having a grand time doing it because I'm getting to know you, we're gossiping, we're talking, we're building, and we're exchanging ideas and creating this thing together, it's going to be beautiful. Then you're going to have a house that is going to reflect that landscape and reflect that context naturally. You're not trying. It's not a mind saying, "I'm going to use this style to make it match." It is going to happen organically, naturally, all on its own, if it's built from what's right there.
The Straw Bale House Book is available from Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1-800-639-4099. For information on workshops contact: The Canelo Project, "Connecting People, Culture and Nature." 1101 Box 324, Elgin, AZ 85611. (520) 455-5548.
The preceding article and photographs (originally in black & white) are reprinted here with permission. They originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of DESIGNER/builder monthly magazine. DESIGNER/builder is published by Fine Additions, Inc., 2405 Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Phone/fax 505-471-4549. Subscriptions in the US: $28 for one year, or $48 for two years. Contact for rates outside the US.
Why did The Last Straw choose to introduce Athena and Bill at its website with an article that ran in another magazine? Because it's a very good article. Our mission is to present information and material from all sources in order to promote straw-bale construction and natural building.
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